This is my story of what happens when Christians dare to love across borders.
Once upon a time, an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old, unaccompanied minors, were crossing the Mexico-Arizona desert. They had one goal in mind: to be reunited with their mother, who had made the same journey when they were 4 and 8. They had stayed behind with their wonderful grandfather, whose recent death had occasioned their own journey to El Norte. Just a few days earlier, they had ridden the infamous cargo train, La Bestia. After a one-month journey from beautiful Guatemala through beautiful Mexico, they were two days closer to their destiny. Only the desert stood between them and their mother. They made it, and today they are 31 and 34 years old. They are still strong believers of the American Dream: the reunification of families.
My story begins in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where I lived with my mother, grandfather and younger sister. My family dynamics changed when my mother decided to emigrate to the United States. As a single mother with limited education and the sole family provider, she was tempted by the successful stories of those who had emigrated to the United States. Mi mami, therefore, decided to leave everything behind in search of a “better life” for her family. We stayed behind with our abuelito. I was 8 and my sister was 4.
Unfortunately, when I was 14, my grandfather passed away. My mother was forced to choose between going back to our country or bringing us north to pursue the American Dream. She chose the latter. Our journey to the United States was similar to that of some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living there today. We crossed the Mexico-U.S. border without authorization. Our journey was filled with sadness, loss and fear. I did not want to come to this country. I had lost my grandfather a year earlier and now was going to lose the place where I belonged in exchange for a foreign land.
I recall two memories. The first is riding on a cargo train known today as The Beast. In 1998, this train was not as dangerous as it is today. It was empty, dirty, cold and slow. My second memory is walking on the Mexico-Arizona desert for two days. The desert was lonely, hot and dry during the day, cold and empty during the night. We entered U.S. territory through a desolate area, and the only sign that “welcomed” us was a long, paved highway.
In 1998, when I came to live with my mother in downtown Los Angeles, I did not understand the implications of what it had meant to cross the Mexico-U.S. border without authorization. My mother immediately enrolled me in high school, and I began my ESL program. She wanted me to study to become a successful person and have a better life than she did. In high school I learned it was “wrong” to be an undocumented immigrant. I learned to be afraid and ashamed of my undocumented identity. By the time I graduated, I also had learned I could not attend college because I did not have documents to apply for and finance my education. I was not a U.S. citizen. I was not a permanent resident. I was an undocumented immigrant.
Thankfully, AB540 (2001) enabled undocumented students to attend California colleges and universities and pay the same in-state tuition as any other California “legal” resident. We did not have access to in-state or federal financial resources, but we could go to college. My mother cleaned houses, I cleaned houses, and together we were able to pay for me to go to community college. When it was time to transfer to a university, I could not go because I did not have the financial resources I needed. Instead, I decided to attend Bible school, where I worked in exchange for scholarship opportunities.
My first encounter with a Mennonite community happened in the fall of 2010, when one of my mentors encouraged me to apply for the Samaritan Scholarship available at Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University. I did not know anything about Mennonites, but I was willing to enter any space where undocumented students were welcomed. That fall, I became a Samaritan Scholar at FPU.
I graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in biblical and religious studies. After my graduation, I was unsure about my future because even though I had a college degree I did not have the documents needed to apply for work. I was not a U.S. citizen. I was not a permanent resident. I was an undocumented immigrant.
Despite this obstacle, I decided to apply to Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif., to continue pursuing my dreams. Fortunately, that same year, in June 2012, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was announced. DACA offered temporary deportation protection to undocumented youth and the opportunity to obtain a work permit. In March 2013, I became a DACAmented immigrant. That same year I began working at Fuller, and in the summer of 2016 I graduated with a master of arts in theology.
My journey encompasses triumph and pain. A Guatemalan undocumented immigrant, I was able to attend college and graduate with a master’s degree despite my undocumented status in this country. However, I cannot ignore the uncertainty, shame, remorse, fear, marginalization and loss of belongingness. I still feel the pressure to show America and Americans that I am worthy to live and work in their “great nation.” Most importantly, my “successful” story is not universal. There are many broken dreams in the undocumented community because many still live in the shadows of this society. Like some of them, I have learned to be ashamed of our journeys and have hidden our undocumented identities. In today’s political arena, we are constantly reminded that we do not belong here and are not welcome.
In September 2017, the current U.S. administration fulfilled its campaign promise to end DACA. Thankfully, two recent federal court orders have temporarily blocked this inhuman and xenophobic decision. Therefore, I am living somewhere between fear and courage. I fear deportation and family and community separation. But I am certain I do not want to be afraid or ashamed of who I am and how I came to this country. These days I have felt empowered to own my story and share it to empower people to be in solidarity with me and my immigrant community.
Los Angeles has been home to me for the past 20 years. It is where my family has been reunited. It is where I take afternoon walks along the ocean and watch my favorite sunsets. It is where God’s border-crossing love has been manifested through countless allies—fellow sisters and brothers who have welcomed my immigrant story and have dared to extend their tangible hospitality across my undocumented borders. I am not a U.S. citizen. I am not a permanent resident. I am a DACAmented immigrant, and my story begins in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
Jennifer Hernandez lives in Los Angeles and attends Pasadena (Calif.) Mennonite Church.
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